A Necessary Risk: To Advance True Diversity, Hollywood Must Act Boldly

Published: Feb 24, 2022  |  

Over the past seven years, the entertainment industry has been publicly criticized for its lack of diversity, and the resulting work environments. In 2015, there was #OscarsSoWhite; in 2017, Ronan Farrow’s expose of sexual misconduct allegations against Producer Harvey Weinstein.

In response, we saw the 2018 formation of Times Up by prominent actresses, which set out to combat workplace sexual harassment; and the 2020 Oscars in which not a single woman was nominated in the Best Director category. (Dig deeper and you’ll find a troubling lack of nominations for women in many of the crafts; in fact, only two women have ever received Best Cinematography nominations, Rachel Morrison in 2018 and Ari Wenger in 2022.) Most informed news consumers now know Hollywood’s statistics are appalling: the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that, of the 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019, only 10.7% were directed by women; 12.1% were directed by men of color; and a paltry 1% were directed by women of color. Less attention is paid to the dismal representation of women in cinematography and composing, both of which regularly hover around 2-3% for top-grossing films and clocked in at 6% and 7% respectively in 2021.

It’s easy to look at numbers like this and determine that women and people of color face active discrimination—that people in hiring positions don’t see them fit for leadership positions, that certain candidates are deprived of opportunities due to prejudice and bigotry—and of course, that is true in some cases.

But the larger problem is a bit more insidious, and far less exciting. The opponent looks less like a cross-burning klansman than it does like everyday human nature and the classist realities of employment that affect working-class people in various industries, and are only magnified by the serial entrepreneurship inherent to the movie business. As young people seeking education and employment, most of us heard the adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” intended to inform us that the vast majority of employment opportunities come from personal recommendations. In film, television, and commercial production, this reality is accentuated by the temporary nature of the work: members of production teams are constantly seeking employment because the project-based jobs usually last anywhere from a few days to a few months. These workers—from producers and directors to production assistants—rely on personal connections and recommendations for job after job. At work, people form collegial connections, often based on similar interests and life experiences (factors that promote homogeneity); these relationships form the foundation for their recommendations to others. And, as in many industries, entry-level opportunities often go first to people with existing industry connections: a colleague’s mentee, a coworker’s nephew, a friend’s daughter. The result of such a system is that, more often than not, workplaces reflect the same lack of diversity of most upper to upper-middle class American social circles.

Additionally, many of the entertainment industry’s common practices have the side effect of discouraging diversity. First, workdays are long: the standard is 12 hours. This makes it hard for parents—especially mothers who tend to shoulder more child-rearing responsibilities—to work in such an environment. Granted, some parents do manage to have children and work in the field they love, but the long work days pose specific challenges for parents. There are daily nuts-and-bolts concerns, like who will retrieve children from school or daycare, who will fix dinner, give baths, and facilitate bedtime. Most members of a film set, especially crew, are expected to respond on a moment’s notice throughout the workday (nobody wants to be the person who slowed down production); for new mothers, this makes it stressful and difficult to find the right time (not to mention an appropriate space, especially on location shoots) to pump breast milk. Finally, the industry’s intensely competitive culture encourages its workers to put their careers above all else: if you want to succeed, you must put work first, show that you “want it” more than anything. But that comes at a high cost for the people who miss dinner and homework with their kids every night—even more so for kids who desperately want to read a bedtime story with a parent who’s at work, 12+ hours per day, 5-6 days a week. 

And with such long days, it’s especially important to like who you work with; you spend a lot of time with them. So again and again, people often hire the same friends they like to work with—people they relate to and are comfortable with, which often results in homogenous crews. 

Second, there’s the issue of compensation. Others pointing to discriminatory industry practices (including the organizers of #PayUpHollywood) have noted that the entry-level jobs (assistants, mail room attendants, etc.) reputed to open doors for eager industry newcomers often pay so little that most working-class college graduates could not afford to accept such positions. Living in Los Angeles requires more income than these jobs offer, additional funds which are often provided by the families of those who take such positions. The traditional structure is akin to an apprenticeship model—newcomers work hard in low-level positions, learning the ropes and proving their worth. But because these positions are so woefully undercompensated, “paying one’s dues” is not merely figurative; Hollywood assistants (via credit cards and other desperate means) and/or their families subsidize production budgets (and it’s worth nothing that these budgets that are often egregiously wasteful in other ways). Furthermore, over the years, opportunities for those assistants who lack the requisite social and professional networks to advance beyond these positions into union jobs have steadily diminished—and assistants have begun to discuss workplace violations like unfair pay, wage theft, and abusive supervisors.

Third, many productions exist as distinct business entities. Having individual companies that launch and dissolve makes it challenging to hold institutions accountable for their labor practices—in hiring, management practices, and even in issues so basic as honoring contracts. Because they are short-term businesses, these entities often lack the infrastructure (i.e. human resources departments) that would normally spearhead diversity and inclusion initiatives and handle reports of workplace harassment. 

Finally, there’s the ultimate chicken-or-egg paradox for directors. Those seeking directing work (a position often the focus of media attention) must already have directing experience—having directed a television show or feature film is very often a requirement for consideration as a candidate for film and television directing work; directing a major commercial requires experience directing with large budgets. For most, the barrier to entry is directing an independent feature; that feature requires financing, no small feat for those unable to fundraise via wealthy friends and family ($250,000 would be a very low-budget feature film).

These are among the contributors to the dismal statistics fueling the outrage behind campaigns like “Oscars So White,” “Time’s Up,” and “Pay Up Hollywood.” In response to criticisms of the entertainment industry’s lack of diversity, especially in management and executive postions, press releases announced studios’ and production companies’ commitment to hiring women, non-binary folx, and people of color. Initiatives were created. Training and mentorship programs birthed—well intentioned? Sure. However, in the privacy of their homes, very experienced filmmakers—great filmmakers—whispered, I don’t need mentorship. I need work… But those same people embraced these mentorship programs with hope because—as noted previously—jobs come from people you know. Knowing the right people is everything. And honestly, if anyone talented and underrepresented could get a career boost from these programs, that would be great.

The thing is, though, there are a lot of diversity incubators and mentorship programs, and many predate recent public shaming of the entertainment industry. Google it—you’ll easily find many. Fox, ABC, Warner Brothers, CBS, not to mention various independent programs. There are also so many eager candidates that these programs are also extremely competitive. And one’s chances of acceptance are absolutely increased by—you guessed it!—a personal connection. Unfortunately, many of these programs’ participants find themselves unemployed at the end—and, to be fair, this is an industry in which finding employment is a constant challenge.

Furthermore, creating training programs in response to a lack of diversity implies that the problem is a lack of qualified candidates: a presumption which is patently untrue. MFA film programs have been diversifying their student populations for many years, creating an abundance of exceedingly well trained filmmakers of various backgrounds—women, people of color, and people with disabilities—who are severely underemployed and burdened with a mortgage (or two) worth of student loan debt.

Diversity is not achieved through press releases, training, or mentorship programs; it’s achieved through hiring. It’s achieved through people like Ava Duvernay, who hired women to direct every episode of Queen Sugar, providing the television debut for many directors. It’s achieved by giving new talent a shot, as Insecure did time and again, casting many then unknown Black actors in their breakout roles___. But it shouldn’t fall solely on those who’ve painstakingly carved through the glass ceiling to pull others up behind them by sheer force of will. To effect substantive change, the industry needs a new way of thinking: hiring must be approached with effort, intelligence, and imagination. 

People are traditionally considered qualified for directing jobs based on experience. There are some television directing opportunities, low- to mid-budget film directing opportunities, and very few opportunities to direct big-budget films. A handful of directors (and the same goes for other department heads) are considered for high-budget films—and understandably so. When you’ve got a project with a lot of money on the line, you want a leader who’s up to the task. Hiring someone with similar experience mitigates risk. Of course, most of the people with that level of experience are upper-class white men (shout out to the exceptions—we’re rooting for you!). 

This same dynamic plays out on low- and mid-budget projects, television shows, commercials, etc. If the person hiring for a project chooses a newcomer, an “unproven” director, that person assumes a risk. If the director doesn’t come through, the hirer could lose their job. But true diversity doesn’t come when you hire time and again from the same pool of talent. It’s not achieved by hiring from the “safe” and comfortable pool of known quantities—even hiring members of that group whose demographics happen to look good on a diversity report. Truly diversifying means adding new and different people to that pool. And the truth about hiring new people is that it’s hard. And scary. It requires abandoning the venerated idea that spreadsheets can predict box-office successes—abandoning the idea that rehashing old stories is a formula for profit (the numbers tell us it’s not)—and embracing the reality that the surest bet is a great story well told.

My money is on hiring filmmakers who tell stories with nuance and complexity, stories with compelling characters, and with heart—and many “uproven” directors are equally capable of that as people with the “requisite” experience. Finding the right filmmaker for a project—someone who connects with the material and has that unique blend of creativity, realism, and charisma that makes a great motion-picture storyteller—requires insight and care. And finding new voices requires the courage to take chances on newcomers who demonstrate the right qualities. It’s the kind of brilliant decision-making that matched Ryan Coogler (who’d then directed the indie feature Fruitvale Station and his 2015 Rocky sequel, Creed) with Black Panther, a film that destroyed the long-held but wildly incorrect notion that “Black films don’t travel” when it became one of the top-grossing films of all time. It was the humanity with which Coogler told the story, artfully lending complexity to the story’s villain, causing audiences to cheer for the hero while aching for his nemesis, that drew us into the story.

With diverse storytellers, we get exciting and fresh stories about characters we don’t already know. New voices bring new perspectives. New lenses through which people of different races, genders, ethnicities, ages, and abilities can see themselves, can imagine, and dream. We see glimpses of the possibilities in brilliant work like Reservation Dogs, I May Destroy You, and season two of Atlanta. Even more important, and often missed in conversations about diversity and inclusion, entertainment is an industry. This isn’t art for art’s sake; profit margins matter. And diversity is proving to be profitable. Diversity is risky. But it’s a risk worth taking.

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